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Most Telling Cut of All

by: Matt51 (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 001 Word Count: 13183
Rating: MATURE
Warning(s): Disturbing Imagery or Content, Violence
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo, Ensemble
Category(ies): Angst/Drama, Suspense
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
Summary: A mutilation, a murder, and a strange turn of events.

Chapters: 1

Gary Abernathy had never been much a fan of big cities, nor of all the noise and pollution and headaches that went right along with them, so Washington, D.C., ranked high up there on the list with all those he truly despised: Boston, Miami, Dallas...the list went on and on and, if the population was anywhere near over a few thousand, Abernathy tried, at all costs, to steer clear and avoid it. It wasn't as if he didn't take vacations or visit the Nation's greatest tourist attractions...he did, whenever the mood struck...it was just he preferred to stay close to home where he knew each of his neighbors, was familiar with all his surroundings, and could just be on his own, laid-back, uncomplicated schedule. And if he merely wanted to sit around after supper each night in his underwear, watching the evening news and openly griping at the commentators and reporters who yammered away on the small screen, he never had to be concerned with offending anyone, not even his old, half-deaf, quickly graying, black Labrador retriever, Horace. He could belch or fart or cuss all he wanted and Horace would never be any the wiser...until the smell wafted its way...then the big dog would turn his huge, mournful eyes in Abernathy's direction and let out a tired, disappointed sigh. Sometimes Horace acted too much like a human...and that's what made him so special to Abernathy.

But old Horace was back home in Clinton, Montana, right now, probably lazing the day away in the shade of the wide front porch, licking his nuts and watching the birds fly overhead, while Abernathy was stuck in DC, working his ass off with the rest of the team sent to prepare a special meal for the Washington bigwigs and muckety-mucks. And if any thoughts of stripping down to his shorts or letting a big one rip passed through his tired mind, Abernathy fought them back and refocused on the job at hand. After all, he'd be back home quick enough. All he had to do was get through the next twenty-four hours and he'd be breathing pure, clean Montana air and relaxing back in his recliner, with a cold brewskie in one hand and Horace laying somewhere near his feet...turning those huge, mournful eyes his way again.

Hauling the two heavy, white, plastic, five-gallon buckets from the area just outside the huge walk-in freezer and shifting them closer to the end of the long stainless steel countertop just to one side of the main food preparation area, Abernathy hefted one of the cumbersome containers up onto the clean, metal surface and turned to offer an open, honest smile to his closest companion. He got an amicable, understanding grin back in return, along with a huff of real fatigue, and knew he wasn't the only one feeling the strain right about now. It was getting close to crunch time and their deadline was rapidly approaching.

Abernathy and his companions had been hard at it for several hours, since arriving in the upscale hotel's kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, traveling back and forth from the freezer unit to the food preparation area, happy to be able to contribute in their own way toward this year's annual charity event. It wasn't often the fine citizens of Clinton were invited to present a bit of their unusual regional cuisine to the Washington upper crust but every individual involved was hoping and planning to make sure this year's charity event would be one to remember.

And after the DC politicos and wealthy businessmen had their uncommon meal, they'd whip out their fat checkbooks and sign over some of their nice, pretty greenbacks for the Ronald McDonald House back in Clinton. Oh, yeah...major cha-ching to be had here. That alone would make the long trek back home to Montana well worth any minor discomfort Abernathy or his companions might be feeling at the present time. Plus, it was going to be a real hoot to see how these slick, city people reacted to consuming a delicacy usually reserved for a more common man...or woman.

"How many more we got in there, Gary?"

Abernathy sighed and tipped his head to one side, an eyebrow arching in amusement. "Just two more after these, Keith, and then that'll be it. Looks like we've got our part completed in almost record time this year."

From his position by one of the deep, stainless sinks, Keith Perdue nodded vigorously and let his smile widen a bit further, unconsciously clenching and flexing his cold, stiff fingers, preparing to continue his part in readying the evening's main course. He kept his knife razor-sharp and was an old hand at peeling the thick, skin-like muscle that surrounded each of the tasty organs to be served but, after going through the same, repetitive motions for the last several hours, his aching, reddened digits were just about ready to call it a day...and maybe even a night.

"Whoa! This isn't right..."

Both Abernathy and Perdue immediately turned at the surprised-sounding tone in Vivian Reynold's voice, the stark, shocked expression on her usually kind, weathered face instantly alerting the two men that something was wrong. The eldest of the three assigned to the prep team, and in her seventh year as part of the Clinton delegation, Reynolds was now holding one of the partially frozen organs in a petite hand and peering suspiciously at it through her bifocals, her fingers carefully rolling the firm globe from side to side. She chanced a glance at her companions and quickly asked for their opinion.

"Come here and take a look at this, boys," she beckoned with the tilt of her chin. "Something's not quite right."

*Boys*.

Both Abernathy and Perdue exchanged indulgent smiles at her motherly term for them but left their spots and were instantly at her side, gazing down into the woman's small but capable hand, offering their own opinions about the object. Reynolds was correct: something was not right.

"Calf?" Perdue offered gamely, watching as the woman continued to prod cautiously at the organ. It certainly wasn't as big as those they were using for tonight's feast, not by a long shot.

"Maybe lamb," Abernathy chimed in, even though he was fairly certain that wasn't right either. From the corner of his eye he could see Vivian already shaking her head.

"No...I don't think so," she said slowly, letting the partially frozen organ slide gently from her palm to the clean work space of the counter before her. Reynolds just couldn't place the origin but, for some unexpected reason, the sight of it made her feel anxious and uncomfortable...very uncomfortable. "Gary, why don't you take a minute and go see if Raymond can come take a look. If anyone can identify this, it'll be him."

"Sure, Viv."

And he was gone, leaving the other two staring down at the lump of mystery meat as he hustled to locate the main organizer of this year's charity benefit...and the man who'd supplied all of the carefully harvested organs from his Montana cattle ranch. As Abernathy's footsteps faded down the hallway, Perdue finally had to speak.

"Viv, tell me you're not thinking what I think you're thinking," his voice was pitched low and held a slight note of anxiety. "Please..."

"I just don't know what to think right now, Keith," she whispered solemnly, eyes still on the unidentified organ. "I just know this doesn't belong here."

"But you don't think it's from an animal, do you?" His soft voice quavered and he had to swallow thickly before he could utter his next question. "Do you...do you think it's from a human?"

Finally able to tear her gaze away to look bleakly up into the younger man's anguished eyes, Vivian Reynolds pressed her calloused hands together into two tight fists against her chest. What she saw in Abernathy's face must have been reflected in her own terrified expression.

"Yes."
__________________________

"Ziva!" Jethro Gibbs barked gruffly over a shoulder as he easily made his way down a slight embankment, feet displacing twigs and pebbles and small bits of vegetation in his wake. "Start taking pictures..."

"Yes, Gibbs."

"DiNozzo..."

"Yo, Boss."

"...sketch and measure."

"Already on it."

"McGee," Gibbs was finally approaching the shallow ravine protected by a handful of LEOs, his keen eyes sweeping the immediate surroundings as he stepped carefully toward the waiting body, "I want you to talk to those who found our sailor."

There was no response and, as Gibbs paused, he did a quick, preliminary sweep, taking in the sprawled, face-down position of the deceased, the crushed shrubs that'd been broken and placed haphazardly over the form in a poor attempt to camouflage, and the telltale signs of a classic body dump. When he spotted a cooling puddle of fresh vomit near the booted feet of the downed sailor, he just couldn't contain the sigh of frustration.

"Who the hell puked on my crime scene?" He snapped toward the closest LEO, watching the man's dark eyes narrow angrily and then shift quickly over to settle on a pale, shocky-looking, young officer leaning heavily against a nearby tree. Ah. So, *there* was the culprit...but he still wanted an answer. "Well?"

"Look," the dark-eyed LEO was stepping forward, arms slightly outstretched and hands open, "Officer O'Brien is new to the job and this is his first DB find. Cut him some slack."

Gibbs puffed up, ready to voice his opinion concerning training and preparedness, but cut his eyes back to the kid again. Hell, he looked to be even younger than McGee did when he first came to NCIS and that had been almost infantile in appearance. And speaking of McGee...

"McGee!" He barked again and saw the kid by the tree jerk in reflex to the sound. Gibbs held his smirk in check and dismissed the youngster for now.

"Ah, I think he's still up at the truck, Boss," DiNozzo chimed in a bit hesitantly, clever eyes darting back and forth over the crime scene as he drew the appropriate lines and shapes in his book, using a laser gauge to quickly sight the distance between the body and the surrounding landmarks. "Said something about needing to take a call."

Gibbs grunted his understanding, squatting next to the body, carefully removing a few of the branches, and eyeing the slim, leather ID wallet resting in the middle of the dead sailor's back. "He taking lessons from you now, DiNozzo?"

"No, Boss," DiNozzo's tone was slightly appalled but he shot a cheeky grin Gibbs' way without even looking up from his work, "you know I'd never do anything unprofessional like that."

"Uh huh," the noncommital response slipped out easily and then he looked back at the LEO, pointing to the wallet. "Who placed his identification like this?"

The dark-eyed man stepped closer but maintained his distance from the area right around the body, careful not to get in the NCIS team's way. "O'Brien did but that's exactly where he found it to begin with."

Gibbs held the man's eyes for a moment and then swept his gaze toward the trembling figure by the tree once more. "That right, Officer O'Brien? This is exactly where you found the ID?"

The young officer took a deep breath, pulled away from the tree, and managed a brave step closer. Gibbs could see him trying his level best to get his act together, putting on a professional face before running a trembling hand through his short hair but the kid still looked fairly shaky and pretty much on the verge of failing miserably...maybe even of puking again. Gibbs eyed him warily.

"Y..yes, sir," the young man stuttered, his soft tenor barely reaching across the distance. "I...I could tell he was dead...didn't even need to touch him. The smell..."

"The ID, O'Brien," Gibbs gritted, redirecting the focus, not in the mood for some greenie to go off on a tangent concerning the odor the human body produces when life is gone. That was Ducky's arena. He pointed at the thin, brown wallet again and sharpened his voice. "Is *this* where you found the ID?"

O'Brien's pale eyes widened at the cutting tone but gamely stood his ground. "Yes, sir."

"You touch it without gloves?"

The washed-out complexion went even impossibly paler and the young officer looked quickly to the other LEO for guidance. He saw the older man nod. Now was not the time to be reserved or to try to hide any mistakes, no matter how rookie or stupid they were.

"Yes, sir," he admitted, squaring his shoulders and willing to take whatever punishment was doled out by the federal agent.

"But you didn't touch anything else, correct?"

"Ah...no, sir. Just...just the ID wallet," he assured with a bit more certainty. "Once I saw he was military..."

"We'll need to clear your prints from any others we may find," he dismissed the young officer again and turned to watch as Ducky traversed the last few yards of the incline, one hand holding tight to the handle of his small, black examination bag and the other gripped to one of DiNozzo's strong forearms. They'd all been a mite overprotective of their medical examiner since he'd badly bruised a hip getting out of their truck earlier in the week and, now, he suffered through all their unnecessary worry and solicitousness with mild annoyance...and a healthy dose of affectionate fondness. Gibbs checked his grin and waited until the older man was a few steps away. "Glad you could make it, Duck. Why didn't you just hop up on DiNozzo's back and let him give you a ride down here instead...it'd been faster."

"Yes, well, perhaps on the return trip," he agreed amicably and a bit breathless, smiling at the gentle tease.

DiNozzo grinned sassily at the suggestion and made a soft, short whinnying sound, one foot pawing at the ground like a big, solid horse. Both Gibbs and Ducky paused, turned their joint gaze his way, and gave the agent an indulgent, incredulous look, waiting only until the happy grin slowly faded and the younger man turned disappointedly away before smirking knowingly at each other. Sometimes DiNozzo was just so easy.

"You finished shooting yet, Ziva?" Gibbs asked without looking in her direction, instinctively knowing the Mossad Officer was positioned a few yards over to his left.

"Yes," she affirmed, blotting her forehead with the back of one wrist and juggling the camera with the other, "though I thought I would widen the field a bit more and take a look near those bushes by the edge of the road. If this is just a body dump and not the initial kill scene, there may be some evidence closer to the tarmac, especially if the body was dragged down the incline."

Gibbs grunted his agreement, not needing to verbalize his assent, knowing the woman was already moving to do suggested. As Ducky eased to one knee by the body to begin his preliminary examination, McGee finally made his appearance, looking slightly out of breath and a bit ruffled, his wide eyes sweeping the scene before settling on those of his supervisor. He caught Gibbs' annoyed glare and swallowed nervously.

Gibbs slowly got to his feet and approached his youngest agent, almost like a predator stalking prey, his eyes hard and cold and alert. To his credit, McGee didn't look or shy away but remained still, waiting to see what Gibbs would say to him...this time.

He'd been warned about making and receiving personal calls while on the job, especially since the publication of his book, but this last one really hadn't been his fault...not entirely. Sure, he'd cut a deal with Peter Remaley down at DC Metro to let him know when anything out of the 'ordinary' came across in dispatch but they'd pretty much worked it out so they never communicated during work hours...or as close to work hours as they could get. That Remaley had thought it necessary to call McGee at this time of the day and break their agreement just proved how unusual the news had been. And how.

"McGee," Gibbs was speaking, almost through clenched teeth, his voice low and tight and...

"Oh, my!"

Gibbs instantly turned at the sound of Ducky's quiet exclamation and had to consciously force himself not to step back as he gazed down at the sight of the dead sailor's body. Immediately forgetting all about his beef with McGee, Gibbs was quickly back beside the ME, arms braced on his knees as he leaned forward to get a better view of the now-exposed wounds. Resting on his back after Ducky had rolled him gently over, the deceased stared at the cloudless sky with open, unseeing eyes.

"Damn..." he breathed in quiet sympathy, eyes skimming the open, torn clothing and the ugly, ruined flesh beneath them. Gibbs had seen a lot of terrible things in his life but this...this was fairly horrendous. It was mutilation, plain and simple...and sickening beyond belief.

Somewhere to his right, Officer O'Brien was vomiting again, choking and sputtering as he reacted to the sight of the sailor's gaping wounds. Gibbs could hear the soft mutterings of the LEOs gathered together to one side, their quiet, muted voices tinged with repulsion and regret. When a long shadow fell across the body of the sailor, he chanced a glance up and looked straight into DiNozzo's shuttered, expressionless face. The younger man's usually mobile mouth was a hard, grim line, lips compressed almost to white slashes across his jaw. Their eyes finally met and he could plainly see the anger and determination housed in the green depths. There was no doubt the image of former NCIS Agent Chris Pacci had momentarily flashed in the younger man's mind.

Before Gibbs or Ducky could comment about his position over the dead sailor's body, DiNozzo was turning away and moving toward Officer O'Brien and the others, his notebook poised open and ready to receive the answers to the standard questions always asked at crime scenes. That DiNozzo could shift directions and refocus so easily always impressed Gibbs...and, in many ways, made the younger man a remarkable asset to the team. Like now. When just about every other male here was averting their eyes and cringing in fearful sympathy, some even openly covering their genitals with cupped hands, DiNozzo was doing his job.

"We'll, if this wasn't the primary cause of this poor, unfortunate, young man's death," Ducky was muttering, "I'll be extremely surprised. The removal of these organs would cause massive blood loss..."

"But there's not much blood around here," Gibbs looked around again, eyes shifting and evaluating the scene carefully again. "Just minimal splattering and drops, as far as I can see."

"Yes, well, wherever it was done," Ducky sighed as he skillfully took a liver temp reading, "it happened around twenty to twenty-four hours ago. Joints are fixed and set in rigor, and, by the looks of the multitude of ants and maggots crawling around in all this soft tissue, I'd say he's been right here for the better part of that time."

"Boss..."

Gibbs glanced up into McGee's pale face, a surge of anger resurfacing. "McGee, you're on my shit list right now and you standing around gaping like some green probie is *not* doing a thing to endear yourself to me. Since DiNozzo is doing your job, I suggest you get your ass in gear and help Ziva."

"But, Boss..."

Gibbs surged up from his crouch and got in McGee's face, standing toe to toe with the younger man. "Just what part of my instructions don't you understand?"

McGee almost stepped away but, at the last moment, held his place, keeping his eyes locked with Gibbs' and openly defying his superior. " I...I don't know if it's the kill scene but, Boss, I...I think I know where the sailor's genitals may be."

Gibbs eased back and looked at McGee with a disbelieving eye. "Where?"

McGee huffed quickly in relief and shook his head. "You're just not going to believe it."
______________________________________

"Bull fries, Rocky Mountain oysters, cowboy caviar..."

"Enough, DiNozzo!" Gibbs snapped as he passed his agent's desk on the way to his own, blue eyes quickly raking over the younger man's sprawled, relaxed position. "Don't you have anything better to do?"

"I'm just educating Ziva and the probie here, Boss," he offered an easy grin and rose smoothly from his seat, moving to match Gibbs' pace, step for step...and pulling up short when the former Marine suddenly stopped and whirled to face him. "Ah, you know, since I have some experience on the subject."

McGee snorted in disbelief. "I don't care what you say, Tony, there's no way I'm ever going to believe you actually ate those...those..." he shivered in his seat, "things."

DiNozzo stepped cautiously away from Gibbs, eyeing him warily before turning to face his colleague. "You forget where I went to school, McGee. Ohio is full of farm communities, as are the surrounding states, and sometimes I went home with frat brothers on weekends or vacations." He looked pensive for a moment, cast a quick glance at Gibbs, but got right back on track. "One year, I got to spend Thanksgiving Break with Teddy Amburgey on his family farm in Indiana and his folks took us to this Turkey Testicle Festival..."

"No," McGee was averting his face as he interrupted, one hand raised in an attempt to ward off the words and expected visual images. "Stop...just stop. Okay?"

"Turkey testicles? And you actually ate them?" Ziva asked from across the room, drawing DiNozzo's attention, her dark, brown eyes looking for any indication of falsehood or exaggeration.

"Well, yeah," he shrugged and shifted his gaze around the bullpen, looking from person to person, trying to understand why they all seemed so...squeamish...about the whole idea. "They're pretty good actually, if they're fried right, and if there's plenty of beer to wash them down. Which there usually is. At testicle festivals, that is. Lots and *lots* of beer."

Ziva held his gaze for a few moments and then looked back to her computer screen, a pensive look crossing her face. DiNozzo frowned and looked back to McGee, hoping to recapture part of his audience.

"Anyway..." he began anew...and then abruptly stopped when Gibbs smacked him on the back of the head. "Ow!"

"Get back to work," the older man ordered over a shoulder as he rounded his desk and pulled out the rolling chair, his posture all but demanding an end to the conversation.

DiNozzo meekly rubbed at his head, looking at Gibbs' now-seated form from under lowered lashes, before slowly slinking back toward his own work station, stopping before reaching his own chair. He flicked his gaze toward McGee and then toward Ziva before resettling on Gibbs once again.

"You know, Boss, in order to murder Southworth, haul his body to the dump site, remove his genitalia, and get that testicle into one of those buckets of bull nads at the Carlton, a person would really have to know several different things to make this twisted plan work," he offered quietly and waited patiently until the older man finally looked his way again.

The two men steadily held their gazes. Gibbs knew DiNozzo would have some reasonable ideas and could probably get them closer to some answers but he felt compelled to wait a bit, stretching out the tension. He didn't always do this but, sometimes, he just had to act like it was a real hardship before giving his senior field agent the go-ahead. It was like a well-choreographed dance between them now, each assessing the other, and waiting for just the right move, but, as far as Gibbs was concerned, it was all okay. He *liked* dancing with DiNozzo. He could see the tension in the younger man's shoulders easing right before he gave his permission.

"Okay, DiNozzo," he leaned back in his seat, "enlighten us."

DiNozzo was immediately changing directions and moving quickly back to the front of Gibbs' desk in three, long strides, his small, compact notebook suddenly open in one hand and his eyes focused on something scribbled on a page. "Okay, when we interviewed those three people at the Carlton Hotel earlier...

"Abernathy, Perdue, and Reynolds," McGee swiftly supplied from his desk.

DiNozzo shot the younger man a brief frown before continuing. "Yeah...ah, Abernathy, Perdue, and Reynolds. Anyway, they all agreed those buckets of nuts..."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs sighed tiredly, "try and be a bit more PC, whatta say?"

The agent heaved a dramatic sigh of his own and shook his head. "How am I supposed to tell you what I think if everyone keeps interrupting me?"

"I haven't interrupted you, Tony," Ziva smirked as she left her desk and moved until she, too, was standing in front of Gibbs' desk, crossing her arms as she stopped directly beside DiNozzo. "Yet."

DiNozzo stared silently down at the woman for a brief moment before clearing his throat and beginning again. "So the three who were handling the prep of the beef...*testicles*," he stressed the word as his eyes flicked quickly toward Gibbs, "said the buckets were all packaged and sealed before leaving Clinton, Montana, three days ago and were kept frozen until just before eight o'clock this morning, when they were moved to a position just outside the freezer unit's door. They said none of the lids appeared as though they'd been tampered with but, honestly, they really hadn't been looking for anything like that. They were just trying to do their job."

"But, obviously, someone had tampered with them," McGee piped in and joined the others in front of Gibbs. "We know Southworth was mutilated..."

DiNozzo made a small sound, one hand covertly easing around to shield his lower abdomen.

"...and murdered just over twenty-four hours ago," McGee continued without missing a beat, "his body dumped along Wheeler Road, almost out of the city, where it was found by Officer O'Brien. Southworth's ah...his...um..."

"Testicle," David supplied swiftly for the younger man, without a hint of hesitation.

McGee nodded, eyes shifting quickly to her face, but continued on with his thought, "... was taken to the Carlton Hotel's kitchen where it was placed in a sealed bucket with all the...uh, other...things."

"So, the killer expected it to be lost in the shuffle, just another one of the boys in a barrel: cleaned, sliced, breaded, and fried with all the others," DiNozzo picked up the thread, eyes tracking back to Gibbs, "and served to some unsuspecting Senator or lobbyist or wife of a multimillionaire." He offered a quick, cheeky grin. "Probably wouldn't have been the worse thing she'd ever had in her mouth."

Ziva elbowed him hard in the side and he curled slightly over with a 'oof!' of expelled breath, partially for show and partially not. Gibbs grunted at their foolishness and continued to scowl.

"Abby's tox screen shows high levels of Flunitrazepam in his system," DiNozzo wheezed, straightening slightly, and shifting a bit away from David. "That has to be why there were no defensive marks on Southworth's body."

"Rohypnol?" Gibbs asked, the scowl deepening. "Damn. He didn't even have a chance."

"The footprints at the dump site indicate only one person," David spoke solemnly, acutely aware of Gibbs' anger, "and they are most likely those of the killer. The body had to have been carried in, since there was no drag marks, and the impressions were much deeper than those left by the LEOs. Southworth was close to two hundred pounds..."

"Minus the weight of his..." DiNozzo saw the flash of warning light again in Gibbs' eyes and decided on a wiser course. "Er, nevermind."

"...so we're talking of an extremely strong individual, someone who, most probably, hefted him from the trunk of a vehicle and transported him to the side of that road," David finished smartly.

Gibbs was silent for a few moments, allowing the information to process. This murder had enough markers to have been caused because of one of several potential scenarios: a hit, a ritualistic slaying, a grudge kill...hell, the possibilities, at this point, were just too many.

"What else do we know?" He barked, watching covertly as DiNozzo rubbed at his side, eyes shifting subtly between the standing trio. "Abby find any prints on those containers yet?"

"Not any besides those of the workers from Montana and a couple of the kitchen staff," McGee answered swiftly, "but she's still processing the buckets. Vivian Reynolds couldn't be sure which one actually contained the...uh... the, ah..."

"Testicle!" Gibbs finally snapped in frustration as he frowned at his youngest agent, ignoring the strange look he got from a pair of passing coworkers on their way to the elevator. "It's called a 'testicle', McGee. Just why in the hell are you having such a hard time saying it?"

"Yeah, Probie," DiNozzo chimed in unnecessarily, "what's with that?"

"Shaddup, DiNozzo."

"Shutting up, Boss."

"What about his family and friends?" Gibbs threw out to all of them, rubbing a hand across his brow in irritation. "Or better yet, what about his enemies? You people are going to have to give me more than this."

"Southworth's mother and father are deceased," Ziva got the words out before either McGee or DiNozzo could react, blithely choosing to ignore their slightly sour expressions. "He was an only child, enlisted right out of high school, and has been a part of the Navy's special bomb disposal unit since..."

"He was EOD?" Gibbs interrupted quickly, eyes focusing on her immediately.

"IED, actually," DiNozzo clarified, eyes serious and tone low. "A dirty bomb specialist. Been in Iraq for almost two years...just came back to the States three days ago to do some retraining and get his Master Badge. Was scheduled to head back at the end of next week."

Gibbs' phone rang and he snatched it from it's cradle. "Gibbs."

The three agents stood warily in front of the desk, watching and waiting for their superior, listening to his soft grunts of assent and studying the stoic face for some indication of the caller's identity. DiNozzo slanted his eyes swiftly toward David and whispered from the corner of his mouth.

"You know how to do that bomb diffusing crap," he hissed with a healthy bit of admiration. "I've seen you in action...up close. Too up close actually."

"Some," she nodded and shrugged, "but not like Southworth, I expect. I never got enough training to receive a Yaalom badge or pin."

"Yaalom?"

"The Israeli EOD. It's the equivalent to your military's units."

"Damn," he had a new respect for the foreign woman, even though he'd never let her know how much, "just how old were you when you started learning all this stuff anyway? Two?"

David chuckled and crossed her arms. "Our education may have been a bit different, yes, but we both learned what was needed."

DiNozzo shifted and shook his head. "I went through the police academy, sure, but..."

"Okay, if you two can stop your little trip down memory lane, we've got more work to do," Gibbs sniped at David and DiNozzo, replacing the phone and rising, cutting off their hushed discussion. "Ducky's got something he wants to show me. McGee, you go see if you can hustle Abby along. And get an address of where Southworth was staying while here and who was retraining him." He was rounding the desk as McGee was turning away. "Ziva, set me up a link with Southworth's CO in Iraq. I need to find out what was happening there and who he was in contact with here." The Mossad Officer nodded and was gone. "DiNozzo, you're with me."

The two men moved quickly to the elevator and stepped in as the doors opened, Gibbs remaining near the front and DiNozzo in his usual position just behind, where he could lean back against the hand rail if he wanted. Instead, when the doors closed, he leaned a bit forward and sighed, his breath ghosting across the older man's shoulder.

"I'm sorry."

Gibbs didn't turn around at the soft apology but tilted his head slightly to one side. "You know how much I hate to hear about your college days."

"I know," DiNozzo sighed contritely again. "I didn't mean to get so mouthy about it but McGee's attitude about this whole thing just gets my goat."

Gibbs finally turned as the doors opened on the Autopsy/Morgue level and he gave DiNozzo a strange, hard look. "Did you really eat *turkey* testicles, DiNozzo?"

"Well, sure, Boss," he smiled with a one-shouldered shrug, making sure there was now an acceptable amount of space between them, even as his gaze dropped to somewhere around Gibbs' belt buckle. "When you get hungry, you eat just about anything. Besides," his voice lowered seductively as his eyes rose, "I like testicles...in my mouth."

Gibbs grunted at the sly innuendo and shook his head, turning around and moving into Ducky's domain. The diminutive Medical Examiner was poised over the cold, nude body of Dwayne Southworth, his elbows resting on the stainless table near the head, one gloved hand gently smoothing back the sailor's thick, brown hair. His lively, blue eyes darted upward at the duo's entrance but he remained in his bent position, seemingly content to be in such close proximity with the dead man.

"Ah, Jethro...Anthony...glad you could come down so soon," he waved them closer to the table and indicated toward the dead sailor's face. "He looks so peaceful now, doesn't he?"

DiNozzo grimaced and shook his head, eyes immediately zeroing in on the mutilated groin area. "Er, *no*. Christ, Ducky, his nuts and dick are gone..."

"Ah, yes...they may be gone from their original position," Ducky straightened and placed both hands on Southworth's face, "but they aren't missing."

Carefully, he pried at the dead sailor's mouth, fingers hooked under the rows of upper and lower teeth, and pulled against the pressure in opposite directions, until Southworth was wide open. Gibbs was shaking his head, not willing to look, already pretty sure he knew what was housed within but he couldn't stop DiNozzo fast enough and the younger man was leaning forward, peering inside the gaping mouth.

"Jesus!" He hissed and quickly jerked back, eyes round with disbelief and hands curling into tight fists. "Do I even want to know what *that* is?"

Ducky grimaced at DiNozzo's expected response "Probably not. I knew there was something in there but I wanted to wait until you got here." He looked directly at Gibbs and his expression got even more somber.

"That's not his other testicle, is it?" DiNozzo's voice was pinched sounding.

"No, not the other testicle. That was recovered from one of the last two buckets retrieved from outside the freezer area of the Carlton Hotel."

Gibbs scowled. "Why the hell am I just hearing about this now?"

"Because Mr. Palmer found it only moments before I called you to come down. I believe what we have here is the poor fellow's penis," Ducky explained calmly, reaching for a pair of forceps among the sterilized tools spread out upon the tray nearby. He maneuvered the ends into the open mouth and tried to grasp the organ. "It seems to be in fairly deep, though that may have been caused by the reflexive swallowing action before he died."

"He was *alive*?" If possible, DiNozzo's voice was even more strained, his eyes round with stunned disbelief.

"Oh, yes," Ducky continued without looking up, taking his time, wanting to remove the decaying flesh intact. "He was very much alive when his genitalia were removed. I dare say this," the penis suddenly slid out in an obscene, bloated blob and Ducky quickly transferred it to the tray, "was forced into his mouth while he was still conscious, unable to resist. Although, he most likely didn't even realize what was being inserted. Shock, blood loss...both would hamper any defensive moves he might have attempted but doubly so with the Flunitrazepam in his system."

"He was awake," DiNozzo's astonished whisper was almost unheard as he shook his head. "Son of a bitch..."

Gibbs forced his eyes away, focusing back on Ducky. "This is a message."

"Yes, that was exactly my thinking," Ducky agreed unhappily. "Now, in olden times, if it had been a finger or two, we might have assumed this was in retaliation for some thievery. Even a tongue could be cut right out," he made a sharp, quick slashing motion with one hand, "and force-fed to a liar..."

"A liar?" DiNozzo frowned, intrigued despite the situation, jamming his hands inside his pockets. "So, this is personal? If a thief gets his fingers chopped off and a liar gets his tongue cut out, what does that make this guy? Besides dickless, that is."

"Sounds like we may have ourselves a crime of passion," Ducky murmured quietly.

"Passion?" DiNozzo shuddered, a slightly worried expression settling in. "You mean, like a jilted lover or something?"

"Didn't you just break up with a girlfriend, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked blandly.

The younger agent looked at his superior and blinked slowly, pausing a beat before responding. "That's not funny, Gibbs."

"If you say so. Ducky," Gibbs was already shifting gears, "I need to know what kind of weapon we're looking for here."

"As soon as I can be certain."

"I got it," DiNozzo removed one hand from the confines of a pocket and he snapped his fingers, eyes lighting up. "Maybe this is like that movie, 'Seven', you know, with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt...the actor, not the doctor...and this unsub is killing people because they're committing the seven deadly sins and this Kevin Spacey character is..."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs huffed in exasperation and watched as the younger man flinched, obviously expecting another smack to the head.

"Shutting up now, Boss," he offered weakly.

"*Now*?" Gibbs growled and then turned his attention back to the ME. "Anything else?"

"Ah, not at the moment," Ducky shrugged apologetically.

Nodding once, Gibbs turned. "Come on, DiNozzo. I think we need to interview a few more people."

Watching the two agents leave, Ducky could only hope for the best. Whoever was responsible for this murder was a wicked, twisted individual and not to be taken lightly, especially with drugs and knives...and mutilation...involved.

"Stay safe, my young friends," he whispered quietly. "Stay very, very safe."
________________________________________

"We don't do the actual frying," Gary Abernathy explained easily to Tim McGee as he sat casually in a nearby chair, close to the edge of the agent's uncluttered, organized desk in the middle of the NCIS main work room. "We just do the prep work for the cooks. You know, strip off that tough, old, outer membrane and slice 'em into just the right size. They need to fry evenly, so we try to get them uniform: too thin and they'd end up like potato chips, too thick and they'd still be bawling when you bite in!"

The big man laughed hardily at his own joke and eyed the younger man knowingly. He could spot a greenhorn a mile away and this kid just reeked of a life lived entirely in the comforts of some big city, away from the blood and the sweat and all the work that went into making sure he got his regularly consumed steak or hamburger delivered neat and tidy each time he went to the grocery. Yeah, Abernathy knew this kid well. If it didn't come on a plank of white styrofoam and wrapped in plastic, most city dwellers just didn't know what to do.

Letting his eyes drift lazily about the bustling room, Abernathy settled his gaze on the face of the pretty, dark-haired woman at the other end of the narrow work space, watching as she delivered her own set of questions to Keith Perdue. He could see Perdue squirm in his seat and had to wonder if it was the line of questioning or the proximity to a beautiful woman that was making him so antsy. Most likely, the latter. He wanted to laugh again but realized the young man was speaking to him once more.

"Sorry. I didn't catch that," he admitted, bringing his attention fully back to McGee.

"About the slicing of the...um...testicles," McGee stammered but pressed on bravely with his line of thought. "You said you use your own knives...brought them all the way from Montana, in fact. Why's that? I mean, the Carlton Hotel has plenty of quality blades. Why not make use of them instead?"

Abernathy snorted...and then coughed. "Are you kidding me? That damn executive chef made sure we understood before we left home we'd be needing to bring our own tools and flat out told us we wouldn't be allowed to use any of his fancy knives. I think he was afraid we'd break the blades or something." He shook his head and sighed. "Come on, Agent McGee, you tell me: just how much damage do you think a beef testicle can do to hard carbon steel?" He barked a short laugh and waved his large, strong hands around. "None, that's how much. A big city chef would know that, right? It's not like they're made of concrete. But it didn't matter to him and, honestly, it really didn't matter to us. We all like using our own knives anyway. We're use to them, know when they need sharpening, know how to work with them. So, we all carried our own...packed away inside our suitcases. Sure didn't want to get stopped by airport security, you know."

"No, I expect not," McGee agreed, letting his eyes slide over the older man. "And you've turned in all your personal knives for our inspection?"

Abernathy frowned. "Yeah. I told you that already. What's this all about anyway? That dead sailor?" He shook his head. "Like I told you before, I didn't recognize his picture."

"We have your initial statement," McGee agreed again, keeping his voice even and calm, "but we want to make sure we've covered everything."

"Look, Agent McGee," Abernathy huffed, "you have to know what a shock it was for us to find that guy's testicle mixed in with all those beef nuts but, I'm telling you straight up, I've never even heard of Dwayne Southworth. None of us have."

"That's exactly what I told Agent Gibbs," a feminine voice grumbled from a short distance away and Gary Abernathy was pushing to his feet, country manners kicking in, turning to face Vivian Reynolds as she took the last few steps into their area of the bull pen. Gibbs was just a step behind her, carefully watching her interaction with Abernathy. "None of us had ever heard of that poor, young man before all this occurred."

Abernathy frowned for a moment, taking in his friend's pale face, and then lifting his angry eyes to the man directly behind her. "You okay, Vivian? They treating you all right?"

"Don't get your hackles up, Gary," she huffed, patting his cheek affectionately. "I'm fine."

Gibbs gently pushed past the older woman and looked directly into Abernathy's resentful eyes. "Listen to me, Mr. Abernathy, I want you to think very carefully about what I'm going to ask before you respond again." He turned back to face Reynolds. "And I need for you to step away for a few moments," he pointed toward DiNozzo's empty desk, "over there. Just have a seat and don't speak again to anyone until asked. Understand?"

"Of course I do, Agent Gibbs. I may be old but I'm not stupid."

"No, ma'am. Never thought you were."

Reynolds looked once more at Abernathy, nodded silently, and then moved away, sliding easily into DiNozzo's vacant seat just as she'd been directed. She may have been positioned across the room now but her eyes were locked on the activity still occurring by McGee's desk.

"Sit," Gibbs instructed brusquely, waiting until Abernathy was back in his recently vacated seat before moving to stand directly in front of the man, looking down with an assessing stare. He paused a moment longer before beginning, hoping the gravity of the situation would sink in. "How well do you know Mr. McManus?"

"Raymond?" Abernathy asked in surprise, eyes going wide, not really understanding the direction of the question. "I've known him for most of my adult life...ah, going on forty years now, I guess. He owns close to a thousand acres and produces some of the best beef cattle in the county. He supplies the nuts for the DC charity dinner each year." He eyed Gibbs suspiciously. "Why?"

Gibbs ignored the inquiry and pressed on with his own. "Tell me about his daughter."

"His daughter?" The big man frowned, totally thrown by the question, and glanced at McGee before focusing back on Gibbs. "You mean Amanda?"

"Yes," Gibbs nodded. "Tell me what you can about Amanda McManus."

"Well, I'm not sure how far back you want me to go," Abernathy responded honestly. "I mean, Raymond and Rebecca started bringing her to church when she was just an infant. I watched her grow up."

"What about during her adult years?" Gibbs shifted directions. "Did she have a romantic connection with any of the boys back in Clinton?"

Abernathy frowned again. "Do you mean, did she ever date? Well, yeah...I suppose. Look, I was a neighbor, not a snoop." He chanced a glance back over toward where Reynolds was sitting. "Vivian could probably tell you more than I could." He seemed to realize the implication of the statement and tried quickly to amend it. "Not that she ever gossips or anything."

"I need to hear what *you* have to say," Gibbs pressed on calmly. "Did Amanda date?"

Abernathy shifted in the seat. "Well, I think she did but it I don't think there was ever anything serious, you know? She's always been kind of shy and reserved. Taught Sunday school for as long as I can remember, took care of the nursery before that, when she was just a teenager."

"But no one serious?"

"Not that I know of." The bushy eyebrows arched downward in concentration. "Raymond was always real protective, especially after Rebecca died. But when she went away to school in Billings, Montana State University not Walla Walla, Amanda got into a bit of trouble during...I don't know... her second or third year, I guess. Look, Agent Gibbs, my memory isn't too good."

"Seems fine to me," Gibbs remarked blandly. "Go on."

"I don't know what I can possibly add," Abernathy started to get upset. "She came home from school and Raymond stayed on the ranch more than usual. Never saw her out much. I think she just took care of the house and added another hand when her daddy needed help with the herd."

"This help include the cutting of the bull calves?" The agent asked, voice pitched low.

"I suppose but I really couldn't say for sure. Most kids raised on ranches know how to do lots of things, including castrating," Abernathy explained, nodding his head, "but I don't know if Raymond would make her do that." He offered a small smile. "He always called her his 'little meadowlark'."

"That's the Montana state bird," McGee piped in suddenly, only realizing how frivolous and unnecessary the comment was *after* the words had left his mouth. He cut his gaze toward Gibbs and swallowed. "Sorry, Boss."

Abernathy was smiling and nodding, unaware of the uncomfortable undercurrent. "Yeah, it sure is. Amanda always had a beautiful voice, singing with the choir each Sunday, sometimes doing solos. Yep, a real pretty voice."

"Mr. Abernathy," Gibbs contained his sigh...plus his desire to smack McGee up-side the head...and slightly shifted his stance, "let's get back to Raymond McManus."

"Okay."

"Ms. Reynolds indicated that Raymond McManus once told her that Amanda left school during her junior year because of her involvement with a young man...someone identified only as 'Boomer'. Does that ring a bell with you?"

Abernathy pursed his lips, thinking about the strange name. "No, can't say as it does. That sounds like something you'd name a dog, not a person."

Gibbs shrugged and reached for a folder on McGee's desk, opening it with a finger and skimming down to a spot on the typed sheet of paper. "Do you consider Mr. McManus a violent man?"

"Raymond?" His surprise was evident. "Hell, no. He's a real gentle man. I've never known him to even raise his voice much less a hand to anyone."

"Really? Then I guess it would come as a surprise to you to learn Mr. McManus was arrested on the campus of Montana State University for assault five years ago."

"That's...that's impossible..."

"No, it's on record," Gibbs continued, "if you look hard enough. Charges were dropped because the young man refused to press charges."

"I...I don't understand," Abernathy was shaking his head. "What has this got to do with..."

"The young man he assaulted was Dwayne Southworth," Gibbs voice was cold and hard. "I've got an agent bringing Mr. McManus in for questioning right now."

Abernathy was shaking his head. "No, that can't be right..."

"I'm sorry," Gibbs sighed and straightened his shoulders. "It's not always easy to learn a friend is not who you expect them to be."

"No, Agent Gibbs," the big man was still shaking his head, "I don't think you understand. Didn't you say this sailor...Dwayne Southworth... was killed with a knife? That he was...mutilated?"

"Yeah, that's right," now Gibbs was frowning. "What about it?"

"Well, I think you've got a problem then," Abernathy warned, leaning slightly forward in his seat, "because Raymond had a accident a couple of years ago while baling hay. Got both his hands caught in the machinery and had all kinds of nerve damage done...almost lost three fingers, too. That's why he organizes these yearly charity dinners now...he can't hold a knife to help in the actual preparations, so he does all the brainwork. Don't you see, Agent Gibbs, Raymond McManus can't be your killer."
___________________________________

Cold. Stinging cold. Flesh-biting cold. Breath-stealing, mind-numbing cold.

Tony DiNozzo struggled to make sense of his surroundings, though it was a mite difficult to do with one side of his face plastered flat against a frigid, metal floor, but he continued to blink sluggishly in an attempt to clear his bleary eyes and identify the area. The images wavered in and out of focus, muted silvers and grays meshing and blending with the odd tan forms that made absolutely no sense at all. From his uncomfortable perspective, and with the headache pounding and raging inside his skull, DiNozzo just couldn't make heads nor tails of his location.

The only thing he knew for sure was it was cold...very, *very* cold.

The downed agent shivered uncontrollably and vaguely realized staying on this icicle slab-of-a-floor was not the wisest thing to do but there was a sharp, throbbing sensation just behind his right ear that made the thought of any kind of movement real unattractive. It was a sick, familiar sensation and the quick, sudden memories of prior head injuries came rushing back in with a vengeance, making the pounding in his skull throb even harder. Concussion. Well, fuck...

'Get up, get up, get up...' he chanted blearily to himself, brain trying to persuade the almost-unwilling body to follow the simple, basic directions.

Flexing a shoulder and gritting his teeth against the sudden flare of bright pain, DiNozzo felt his stomach begin to roll. Oh, this was *so* not good. Blinking hard and steeling himself against the sensations he knew would be coming, DiNozzo managed to get a shaking hand wedged under himself and used it as a lever, slowly easing over until he was resting on his back, the cold immediately leaching into his shoulders and ass. DiNozzo had to pause before doing anything else, breathing heavily, watching the ghostly vapors of his breath plume away and dissipate the surrounding grayness. Fighting down the surge of nausea and staring in dazed confusion at the flat ceiling overhead, he was racked again by uncontrollable shivering, the small tremoring movements causing his body to scream out in denial. Rest...it just wanted to rest for a few minutes more.

But, oh, it was so fucking cold...and cold meant death...and DiNozzo just wasn't ready to give it up to the old Grim Reaper just yet, no matter how attractive that thought was a the moment.

"Well, crap," DiNozzo whispered and squinted against the discomfort the simple act of speaking brought, dazedly watching as his breath plumed out again. The floor against his back was beginning to turn into a very uncomfortable, stinging burn and he realized he had to get up, regardless of what his weakened body wanted to do.

Blinking again, DiNozzo knew he had to find enough strength to move from this dangerous horizontal position...and soon...or he wouldn't be able to move at all. Wherever he was, it was *so* damn cold and, when he blinked and looked around again, he finally realized the strange, gray shapes surrounding him were rows of metal shelves, filled with stacks of frozen food in tan, cardboard boxes.

Frozen food. *Frozen* food...

"Double c-c-crap," he hissed, ignoring the stuttering sputter, and immediately working to get his quickly numing hands into a position to push himself upright, purposely blocking out the spinning in his head and the surge of bile in the back of his throat His only thought now seemed to be of how disappointed Gibbs would be if he died in a situation like this. His teeth clattered sharply together and he huffed out a soft, ragged laugh. "He'll...k-k-k-kick my fro...zen Italian as-s-s."

Once sitting upright, the agent momentarily let his head hang low, attempting to steady the revolt taking place in his stomach and the searing ache of the phantom spike embedded in his skull. He wrapped his arms tightly around himself and tried to assess his physical condition, already knowing the concussion was pretty bad...but definitely not as severe as the need to get out of this freezing death trap. Blearily, he remembered his survival training and arched his shoulders, pulling the collar of his jacket up as far as he could, trying to cover as much of his head as possible. If he kept his hands tucked under his armpits and stayed in this tucked position, DiNozzo knew he could preserve a good amount of body heat...for about fifteen to thirty minutes..and then it would be all over. Of course, he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious...

"F-f-fuck this..." he mumbled and angrily tugged the jacket back down. He rolled to his knees, taking a few deep breaths of frigid air, and shakily managed to get mostly upright and to his feet.

The cold room abruptly appeared to tilt dangerously to one side and DiNozzo stumbled, catching himself hard against a metal shelf. The contact with his skin almost burned and he snatched his hands swiftly away, pressing a shoulder to the sturdy rack instead. He rested briefly, long fingers fumbling with the buttons of his jacket, the small task almost impossible with the numbing cold, until he groaned in frustration and just gave up. He could tell his coordination was off, knew his shivering was uncontrollable, and realized he was already in the grips of hypothermia. He only had one chance of survival now: he had to get out of here.

Blinking back the angry thoughts of being caught in this situation, DiNozzo lifted his head and looked for the doorway, spotting the rectangular outline a few yards away. He shuffled that way immediately and pressed his face close to the small, square window, trying to peer out and locate a savior. His breath frosted the pane almost immediately and he sluggishly used the heel of one hand to wipe awkwardly at the particles. He caught a brief view of the scene outside and memory came rushing in: the Carton Hotel, a confrontation with Raymond McManus in the kitchen area, asking him to come willingly to NCIS Headquarters, a surprised look on the man's face, and, then, a hard, sickening blow from behind...into nothingness.

He wrapped fairly unresponsive fingers around the door's handle and tugged as hard as he could, already suspecting it would be locked but his heart clenching tight in his chest nonetheless when he realized for sure he wouldn't be able to get out by himself. Shit. He'd been stupid. Walked right into a trap...and had gotten cold-cocked for his efforts.

Cold-cocked. DiNozzo shivered and grinned at the irony, letting his hand drop slowly away from the door's handle. Turning, he placed numb fingers briefly over his crotch, the fabric of his pants almost like some foreign texture under the nearly insensitive digits, and caught himself before a giggle of pure fear could bubble out.

"T-t-t-that ab..out sums it...up, d-d-d-doesn't it, b-b-b-boys?" He stuttered and then groaned, teeth clacking against the severe shivering. DiNozzo knew he had to keep moving, keep his body as warmed as he could, but was so tired and dizzy the need to sit back down just couldn't be ignored any longer.

Shoulders and spine sliding against the heavy, thick door until his ass was, once again, on the floor, DiNozzo pulled his knees up close to his body and looked at the stack of cardboard boxes lined so carefully on the surrounding shelves. They almost resembled abstract sculptures, some short, some tall, some almost human-looking. He blinked slowly, tiredly, feeling the cold gradually pulling him away from his frigid reality.

'Maybe...if I just...rest...for a little..while," he mused sleepily, chin easing down rest against his chest and eyes falling shut, "I'll...be able to...think...better...'
___________________________________________

Jethro Gibbs was furious. Teeth clenching, eyes narrowing, fists gripping furious.

The victim's initial connection to Raymond McManus just couldn't be ignored but, now, in light of Gary Abernathy's claim...and the confirmation by Vivian Reynolds and Keith Perdue...it just didn't seem possible the rancher was responsible for Dwayne Southworth's death. And, yet, something was not quite right. Something was telling Gibbs' gut that McManus had to be a part of this puzzle. Somehow...some way.

And, to top it all off, DiNozzo now wasn't answering his cell.

So, besides wanting to stay close to the lab to be there when Abby and Ducky completed their tests, wanting to get the connection to Southworth's CO in Iraq when he became available, and wanting to work through the evidence they had on hand, Gibbs and his team were on their way back to the Carlton, swinging through the late afternoon traffic, ignoring the blaring horns and the rude gestures of the commuters in his way, and intently focusing on throttling his wayward agent. This day was rapidly going down the toilet...

The trill of his phone sent a combination of relief and ire surging through Gibbs' system. Snatching the device from where it rested on the seat next to his leg and flipping it open without looking at the ID, he barked and snapped at his delinquent agent.

"You'd better have a damn good reason for not answering your phone, DiNozzo!" He growled angrily.

"Well, if I *was* Tony," Abby's voice growled right back in his ear, "I don't know if I'd be wanting to talk to you either!"

Gibbs huffed and shook his head, one hand still easily maneuvering the vehicle through traffic. "What have you got, Abs?"

"You mean, besides a busted eardrum?" He could hear the clear rebuke in her tone. "No wonder no one wants to talk to you when you ..."

"Abby!" Gibbs barked again, not in the least amused.

"Okay, okay," the young tech soothed in exasperation. "Sheesh, Gibbs, just chill. You know how the executive chef at the Carlton didn't want the people from Montana using his knives? How he stressed to them the need to bring their own blades, all the way from home?" Her voice was rising, excitement tingeing her words. "You remember that, Gibbs?"

"Yes, Abby," he almost snapped, patience waning fast, "I remember that. So?"

"So," came Ducky's calm, cultured voice through the earpiece and Gibbs could easily imagine the duo crowded around one of the lab's phones, "I identified the cutting marks and was able to narrow the field of search down to a certain type of knife..."

"...a knife that isn't in our possession at the moment," Abby broke in, "but a knife we now believe is still somewhere at the Carlton Hotel."

"And just why would you think that?" Gibbs asked as he took a corner a bit too sharply, eliciting a barely stifled gasp from McGee and a smirk of admiration from David. He ignored both of them, and the blaring horn of a car he'd almost sideswiped, and concentrated on his train of thought. "We confiscated them all for testing."

"Yes, well, that's what we originally believed," Ducky assured.

"But when we did a final count of all the knives used by the individual chefs," Abby quickly added, "we found a discrepancy."

"Wait...wait a minute," Gibbs frowned, eyes on the road but mind replaying the words, "what do you mean 'individual chefs'?"

"Jethro, the Carlton Hotel is a major establishment and caters to extremely wealthy clientele," Ducky's tone held a bit censure. "They have a number of chefs on their payroll. There's the executive chef, the head chef, the pastry chef, the sous chef..."

"Okay, okay," Gibbs growled, "I get the idea. But how do you know there's a knife missing?"

Ducky's sigh of exasperation was very audible. "Each chef has their own set of knives and they are never shared or used by others and, although each chef has a few different blades to aid in their own type of food preparation, each also use some of the same types. Common blades, if you will. Though, I don't believe there's anything remotely common about..."

Gibbs took another corner, the Carlton coming into view. "Look, we're almost there now. Just tell me what the hell I'm looking for and who should have it."

"The cuts on Southworth's body were inflicted with a high quality, carbon steel bladed, boning knife..." Ducky related quickly.

"...and the only set we found missing that type of knife belongs to a specialist chef by the name of Henri LeBeau," Abby tone held pleasure, "who works specifically for the Carlton."

Gibbs was pulling to a stop, throwing the car into park, and yanking at the door handle, dismissing the approaching attendant while McGee competently showed his NCIS identification. "Good work, Ducky...Abby..."

"Wait, wait! Gibbs!" Abby's strident voice caught his attention and he paused just inside the doorway of the Carlton. "Gibbs!"

"I'm still here, Abs. What is it?"

"Gary Abernathy was getting a drink of water when Ducky and I were talking about this and he started laughing when we said 'Henri LeBeau' and..."

"Abby!" Gibbs barked, eyes sweeping in the direction of the hallway they'd need to travel to get to the kitchen area. Something was telling him to hurry, a prickling sensation running down his spine, a chill across his shoulder blades. He felt McGee and David at his side and began to walk...quickly. "One of you just better spit it out right now."

"Jethro," Ducky's calm voice did nothing to soothe his disquiet, "Mr. Abernathy informed us that Henri LeBeau is none other than Henry Ledford, originally of Clinton, Montana..."

"The hell you say," Gibbs breathed in surprise, eyes traveling across the wide expanse of the formal dining room and homing in on the double doors leading into the main kitchen.

"...and that Mr. Ledford changed his name when he came to Washington, in an effort to fit in with all the upscale establishments."

Gibbs growled as he neared the doors. "What's his connection to Southworth?"

Abby quickly responded. "He once dated Amanda McManus but lost touch with her when she went away to college and..."

Gibbs was pushing through the swinging doors, eyes locking on the scene. He dropped his phone and was pulling his weapon before McGee and David could even enter, yelling out to the two men by the coolers.

"NCIS! Raise your hands now!!"

Surprised by the arrival of the agents, the two men turned, the one Gibbs identified as Raymond McManus immediately throwing his hands up as ordered but the other swiftly turning away and hightailing it toward the back of the kitchen. Gibbs bit out a curse and took off after him.

"Ziva! You're with me!" He yelled over one shoulder. "McGee, cuff him!"

The path down a short hallway led to a back door and Gibbs threw his shoulder against the panel and pushed it open, crouching low and aiming high, weapon cradled professionally in both hands. He shifted to one side as David joined him, her smaller body pressing back against the brick and her eyes sweeping the cluttered alleyway.

"Where..." she started softly but was quickly cut off.

"Don't know. There's a lot of crap out here. You go down the right side, I'll take the left."

David nodded her understanding and stepped carefully out. Gibbs was right: for an fancy establishment, there sure was a lot of trash and debris. Two industrial-sized dumpsters stood a few yards away and she cast her eyes back toward Gibbs, watching as he frowned in their direction, his own gaze zeroing in on the potential traps.

Gibbs held up a fist and David instantly halted, watching as the older man eased to one knee and bent down until he could peer underneath the containers. With his face hovering mere inches from the filth on the alley's stained and puddle splattered ground and his sharp eyes examining the scant space beneath and around the huge, metal dumpsters, David quickly recognized the tense set of his expression. There was something else bothering her supervisor...something besides this ignorant, hiding suspect. She watched as he eased back to his feet and nodded when he tilted his head toward the first garbage receptacle. Might as well try the obvious first...

Banging her fist soundly against the side of the dumpster, David waited only until the booming rattle of metal finally quieted before yelling. "If you're in there, you stupid, American fry-cook, you'd best get out of there right now, before I end up..."

The lid on the other dumpster slowly started to rise and both Gibbs and David were taken slightly aback. They shifted quickly into flanking positions, guns poised, and waited until the top of someone's head became visible, the heavy lid of the container resting uncomfortable on the dark hair.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" The voice was shaky and nervous and Gibbs rolled his eyes at David as he took a step forward, gun still raised and aimed toward the emerging person.

As the dark head rose just past the lip of the dumpster, Gibbs immediately saw their mistake. *This* was not the man he'd seen inside the kitchen.

"Ziva!" He managed to shout out just the beginning of his warning before another figure launched itself from behind a stack of empty cardboard boxes, the movement scattering and knocking them in every direction. He swung his weapon around, seeing the brilliant flash of gleaming metal begin arching his way, and Gibbs instinctively ducked to one side...just as both he and David fired. The charging figure jerked and staggered, knees buckling and bending, sending the man back and down until he was flat on his back, blood welling up and flowing from several wounds.

Gibbs hustled forward and kicked the knife away and reached for his phone, intending to call for assistance, immediately remembering he'd dropped it somewhere back in the kitchen. He looked toward David.

"Ziva, call..."

"Agent Gibbs!" A voice yelled from the door leading back into the hotel's kitchen.

Both agents spun, weapons raised, and looked at the intruder. Gibbs frowned as he recognized the man.

"What are you doing out here, Mr. McManus?" Gibbs questioned quickly, eyes noticing the cuffed position of the man's hands behind his back. "Where's Agent McGee?"

"Please," McManus was shaking his head in agitation, "you need to come back in right now. Your agent..."

That's all he managed to get out. Gibbs was moving, pushing past the bound man, rushing back down the short hallway that led to the kitchen. If something was wrong with McGee...

The sight that greeted him made him momentarily falter. Down on his hands and knees, McGee was bent over the curled-up body of DiNozzo, his young face a mask of pure terror as he talked rapidly to the unresponsive man, his tone right on the verge of hysterical.

"Please, Tony, please," McGee was repeating, "just open your eyes. Come on, just open your eyes...."

Gibbs was there like a flash, eyes taking in the pale, bluish tinge of the skin and the curled, fetal-like position of his agent. A shard of fear stabbed sharply into his soul as his eyes rose to the open door of the freezer unit just a few yards away.

Hypothermia. Oh, God...

"How long was he in there?" Gibbs barked as he ripped off his jacket and quickly tucked it around DiNozzo's too-cold body.

"I...I don't..." McGee stammered.

"About fifteen minutes," McManus offered from nearby, wisely staying out of the way of the activity. "Henry hit him hard on the head...knocked him out...and pulled him in the freezer. Locked him in. Is he..."

"McGee, call for assistance," Gibbs ignored McManus, now that he had the information needed, and reached to one side to pull a strange, scattered stack of collapsed cardboard boxes closer, folding and bending them until he got them just the right thickness, and tucked them all under DiNozzo's feet, elevating the legs as best as he could. "And give me your coat!"

McGee fumbled with his trenchcoat as he spoke. "I called already. They'll be here soon. Should I...what should I do, Boss?"

"Run a little warm water into a cup or glass," Gibbs instructed as he hastily added McGee's long coat to the pile, pleased to see DiNozzo was still shivering. "And see if you can find some sugar to add to it. We need to keep his body fueled up so he can start warming up naturally. Get back on the phone and make sure the paramedics know he's hypothermic."

"I already told them," McGee stressed as he went to do as ordered, locating what he needed, making a mess and not caring one bit. When he turned and headed back toward his downed friend, he saw Gibbs was now stretched out on the floor beside DiNozzo, his body pressing close, hands somewhere under the layers of coats and clothes and face pressed close to the pale, still face. He knelt down and held the cup out. "Here, Boss."

He watched as Gibbs dipped his fingers into the warm sugar water and dribbled it across DiNozzo's blue-tinged lips, gently coaxing them apart, and dripping the soothing liquid slowly inside. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and watched as Ziva entered the area, taking in her surprise and her shock.

"Come on, Tony," Gibbs continued to patiently dribble the warm sweetness, his tone filled with a soft persistence. "Tim," he didn't even look up as he spoke, "lay down on the other side and get as close as you can. Put your free hand right on his stomach...low. Better yet, put the cup down where I can reach it and place a hand on his head, too...right on top."

McGee nodded and shifted down, wedging in close and working a hand under until he touched the icy skin of DiNozzo's abdomen. The feel shocked him immediately. "He's so cold..."

Gibbs only nodded, eyes rising and searching the area. "If we can move him closer to an oven..."

"Gibbs!" David was suddenly speaking. "I can hear voices in the dining room. The paramedics might..."

"Go!" Gibbs ordered, never taking his eyes from DiNozzo's face, watching as much of the liquid dripped from the corner of his mouth.

"He...he was wrapped up in those cardboard boxes, Boss," McGee was talking, telling him something important.

Gibbs blinked and looked quickly toward the younger man. "What?"

McGee tilted his chin toward DiNozzo's feet. "Those boxes. There was frozen food dumped all around in there. I found him rolled up inside a couple of boxes...like that homeless guy we see sometimes down on Third Avenue...trying to stay warm."

Gibbs allowed a small smile to escape as the words registered and he gazed back into DiNozzo's face. "Good boy," he whispered with a bit of affection, pleased the younger man had had enough sense to make use of what had been available...even if it was nothing more than cardboard.

Soon, David returned with the paramedics right behind and both Gibbs and McGee had to give up their positions on the floor. As much as he wanted to stay and make sure all was going to be all right, the NCIS agent gathered the remainder of his team and began processing the scene, taking a statement from a visibly shaken Raymond McManus, from the strange man hiding outside in the dumpster, and waiting until Ducky arrived to direct the removal of the body of Henry Ledford.

And, as he drove to the hospital later that evening to check on his agent, Gibbs thought of the twisted mind of the man who blamed Dwayne Southworth for the rejection thrown at him by Amanda McManus. Gibbs had a difficult time wrapping his mind around the evils men did to each other in the name of revenge but, really, it wasn't such a foreign concept to the man...not in the least...but the measures some people took to accomplish their task were pretty amazing. Amazing but twisted, nonetheless.

Henry Ledford had never forgiven Southworth for 'spoiling' Amanda's purity...or so Raymond McManus had related while still being considered an accessory... back when she was attending classes at Montana State University and had hatched the whole, twisted plan to rid the world of another 'rapist' when he'd learned the young sailor was going to be in DC during the time of Clinton's annual charity event. To make the entire situation even more bizarre was the young chef's attempt in hiding the evidence. He hadn't known how to handle the disposal of the body but, being a cattle rancher's son, had known exactly what to do with the offending organs of his crime. Slice 'em up and eat 'em.

There had been no evidence Raymond McManus had been involved in the scheme but Gibbs still had to wonder how Ledford had known of Southworth's temporary stay in DC. It was one of those elements they's never know, now that the young chef was dead.

Gibbs shook his lingering questions away and focused on the present...and of getting to DiNozzo's bedside as quickly as possible. Ducky had called once to report all was going well and that DiNozzo was responding to the treatment given in the emergency room, stressing there was no indication of frostbite or any other cold-related injuries yet. It all sounded pretty damn good.

Arriving at the hospital and convincing one of DiNozzo's night nurses he was just going to look in, Gibbs was gratified to see a normal color blossoming on the younger man's face as he carefully eased past the slightly opened door and tread silently to the side of the bed. There was a intravenous drip of something set up on the other side, snaking down through clear tubing, and ending abruptly in the back of DiNozzo's right hand. Gibbs winced in sympathy. Nothing like having your dominant hand all but immobile when you needed to scratch or piss or...

"Hey..." the soft voice was low, rough, and caught him totally by surprise.

Gibbs' eyes flashed up from the impaled hand and focused on DiNozzo's drooping lids, watching as the green gaze wavered and cleared. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the lifted side-rail, and smiled.

"Well, you're certainly looking better than the last time I saw you. How you feeling?"

The lids lowered and then rose as DiNozzo quietly cleared his throat. "Okay..."

"Need a drink?" Gibbs was already reaching for the cup holding a bent straw and eased a hand under DiNozzo's shoulder, levering him up just a bit. He watched as the clear liquid was drawn up and held still until he could see the younger man was finished.

"Thanks," came the soft graditude. DiNozzo shifted a bit and looked away from Gibbs, a small frown appearing between the expressive eyes.

"Hey," Gibbs reached out and placed a gentle hand on DiNozzo's chin, turning the face back in his direction, "what is it?"

DiNozzo pursed his lips together and then sighed, eyes lifting and holding the older man's gaze. "I almost gave up, Gibbs," he confessed softly, his expression filled with honest regret. "I sat down and almost went to sleep, thinking...thinking it just wouldn't be so bad."

"Tony..."

"No, listen...it was so cold and...," he swallowed thickly, "Gibbs, there just wasn't anyway out..."

"But you made yourself a shelter," Gibbs stressed. "You didn't give up."

DiNozzo chuckled weakly. "Some shelter...all I could think about was that homeless guy over on...on..." he looked confused for a moment and Gibbs quickly supplied the rest.

"On Third Avenue. That's exactly what McGee said."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Gibbs pulled the blankets up and fussed with them just for a bit before realizing he was hovering. "Well, you need your rest and I just wanted to come by to check on you. Anything you need me to get for you from home?"

"No," DiNozzo replied, "think I'll just sleep some more. If I have a good night, they'll let me go tomorrow."

"That's good," Gibbs nodded and turned away. "Call me if you need a ride."

"Will do, Boss," DiNozzo affirmed. He waited until Gibbs was almost to the door and then spoke again. "Hey, Boss."

Gibbs turned back, one eyebrow raised. "Yeah, DiNozzo, what is it?"

"I never got those testicles like I wanted."

Gibbs could see the sparkle of devilment in the green eyes even from across the room. He grunted and nodded his understanding.

"Well, we'll just have to see if we can fix that for you, DiNozzo...after you get out of here."

The two men eyed each other until the younger man nodded and pulled the covers up a bit more. "Sounds good."

"Get some rest, Tony," Gibbs ordered gently.

"I will, Jethro," came the equally gentle promise.

Turning away again, Gibbs left as silently as he'd arrived, thoughts of tomorrow already playing inside his head. And as he walked the all but deserted hallways of the hospital, heels clicking smartly on the polished lineoeum, he just couldn't control the smile that broke out across his face.

Tomorrow...tomorrow he'd make sure DiNozzo never complained about the lack of testicles again.

END


Chapters: 1

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MTAC - NCIS Fic